Although athletics has always been in Andy Paul’s life, he was never seen as particularly sporty at school.
Paul’s mother was a multi-eventer, competing in sprint races, hurdles and long jump, while his father used to be a race official. Therefore, it was perhaps no surprise that Paul, his brother and his sister all got involved themselves.
They have all gone down different routes – his sister was a starter before dropping out of the sport, his brother continues to be a high-ranking official, while Paul himself went into coaching – now specialising in working with sprinters and sprint hurdlers.
In his school days though, Paul recalls being one of the last picked most of the time, something he now attributes to confusion around his sexuality.
“I wasn’t seen as sporting at school, definitely in a ‘he’s a bit weird, is he queer?’ way,” Paul explained.
“I did primary through to middle through to secondary school in my area, and I think that kicked in during middle school. Questions like ‘who am I?’ started to go through my head, and that’s probably when other people started asking why I was different to them, as kids do.
“I don’t think I had any idea at all. It’s very much a generational thing I think, it’s cultural based on where you grew up. Ironically, I’m actually back in the area I grew up in Streetly, a suburb north of Birmingham. In my growing up, the only connection I had to anything was things like Are You Being Served? on telly.
“I certainly didn’t know what I was, whereas I think the advantages kids have nowadays – it’s not a perfect world, obviously – we talk about it around the network quite often that the world is so much better for a young gay person or lesbian than it was when I was 14, 15 or 16.
“I look at some of the kids in the club, and it’s quite clear that they don’t quite know who they are, but actually they don’t seem to care, and they seem very happy. That’s a really positive change for me, I see that happening and I see kids totally at ease with who they are.
“Some struggle as we all do, but I think the world is a better place. It’s absolutely not perfect, but I think it’s a better place to grow up in when you are gay, lesbian, transgender or whatever. Some are better off than others, absolutely, but I think it’s improving.”
Seeing young athletes questioning their own sexualities and identities gives Paul a window into how things have changed.
Part of that change, though, has been able to happen because people like Paul have been unapologetically themselves. He has taken that one step further than just being visible around his club, as he is a founder member of the Athletics Pride Network.
Negativity towards Paul personally has been rare, but he was moved to take a more proactive role to equality and diversity in athletics because of the lack of messaging around LGBT+ participation in the sport.
“I’ve coached gay athletes, I have known lesbian athletes within my club,” he said.
“I’d like to think I play some sort of role model role, if only for equality. All of my squad know who I am, and they are very defensive of me which is lovely.
“They have done that once as a collective a couple of years back, which was quite interesting to hear. It was a minor thing where somebody who is also in the club had made a comment, and they went like a pack of wolves – in a very constructive way, without kicking the crap out of anybody.
“He was a young lad who had made a comment, and he hadn’t even made it directly to me, but someone heard it as a collective they went ‘you can’t say that’. First of all, he’s our coach so you should respect him, he does everything to try and help. It was a really pleasing response.
“That was really pleasing, and now they just take the piss out of me like I take the piss out of them on a number of things – girlfriends, boyfriends, whatever.
“I’d like to think that because people know who I am and where I’m from, there’s a learning from that. It’s not in their face, I don’t go up to them and say I’m gay, but if someone asked I would. I like to think there’s equality measures that come out in how I deliver.
“I’m very conscious though, and it’s part of the reason we started having conversations about the APN, that when I started to look at what my sport was saying about the LGBT+ community, it wasn’t saying anything.
“That’s slightly unfair in that Donna Fraser had just started as our equality and diversity officer for the sport, and she’s been fantastic. It’s absolutely amazing what she’s done, she has really taken it forward.
“Because she came into post, I went looking on the websites for British Athletics and English Athletics and so on, and I couldn’t find a statement to say this is what the sport is doing to address issues in the sport around LGBT+ and gender. That was a real shame. The stuff on England Athletics’ website was about two years out of date, there was nothing on Northern Ireland, Scotland was the most proactive and in Wales there was a bit.
“What started our first conversation was that Donna’s information on the British Athletics’ website was all about how they were delivering to staff at UK Athletics. They had done all this stuff internally, so I phoned Donna to say ‘this is great, but what are you doing externally to the public face’? The answer was not a lot.
“For whatever reason, Ethan Akanni was wearing his rainbow laces at a race and posted them, so I messaged him on Instagram and said we need to talk. We met up a month or so later, because he happened to be in the same events that I coach, and it kind of rolled from there to address the messaging and the positivity.
“It wasn’t, for me at least, about a negative thing. It was more about what we have the opportunity to celebrate, and recognised, and what could help people feel more engaged with the sport.”
Celebration was a key part of the APN’s early aims, as well as providing a safe space for members and promoting inclusion and equality.
One way to do that is to share stories – something they have done through online panel discussions publicly, but members have also been able to learn from each other by talking privately.
As much as they have been a resource for each other though, they are looking to refresh their public messaging in the coming months by targeting coaches and parents involved in athletics.
“We’re going to freshen up the messages a bit to try and engage with a lot of the people who are on board, but haven’t yet done anything, or maybe just sitting in the background and listening,” Paul reasoned.
“That’s fine, but we know we’ve got a lot of expertise and some really cool stories that we’d like to see shared. There’s a guy called Sam Picton, he follows the Instagram page, a young sprinter from Rotherham, and he’s just done a piece for the Gay Times about his journey. I think he’s only 19, and it’s really cool.
“He jumped on board really early, it was so cool, he was really pleased to have this, but we haven’t really used him on the network yet.
“We’ve got trans athletes, men and women, who have their very own personal stories. Susie O’Connor is on the core group, Vixx has joined us recently, and they’ve got hugely broad backgrounds in education and understanding that we can use to help push the right messages.
“My story doesn’t apply to somebody like Sam, because he has grown up in a very different teenage period than I did.
“It should be that somebody my age looks at someone like Sam and says that’s great, let’s make sure the environment for him stays that equal and that we’ve learned from the mistakes when I was a teenager to how it is now, and make that experience better so that the next Sam or the next Lizzie Williams or the next Beth Tucker have a good experience.
“We’re currently working with Diversity Role Models to create a workshop for clubs, coaches and athletes. It’s not too dissimilar to what they already do in schools, but it puts an athletic message around it.
“We’re targeting coaches, athletes and parents again just to spread the word. If your kid tells you this, what are you going to do about it? I’ve had three athletes I coach come out to me. Why they chose me, I don’t know, but I’d like to think it’s because they felt comfortable enough to do so.
“I think the response from athletes that have left the sport that I’ve worked with in the past has been hugely positive, and that’s amazing, so encouraging. Those messages, those stories, are crucial.
“I’d actually like to go back to some of the girls who were in our sport and left, because it comes back to that point right at the start – why do lads who aren’t quite as masculine as the others get slapped and shouldn’t so sport, whereas in female sport it’s assumed you’re a lesbian at least? It’s bizarre. It’s typical of a heterosexual, male world to do that, but we can fix that, and I think we are addressing those things.”
There are two things that Paul is particularly proud of with the APN: their members are involved with athletics in a number of different ways, and they were first.
Over the last year many other sports have started up their own pride networks, but Paul is always keen to remind them that athletics were first across the line.
“Luckily enough a few of us now have spoken to various other networks that have started,” he said.
“It’s amazing. We didn’t know what would happen, but whether they were thinking about it – and I’m sure they were – it probably needed somebody to step up and go ‘here we are’.
“It happened to be us, but I’m really pleased it was us, and I make sure that I mention that in every pride network meeting that I have. We’re all competitive, and we all want to win, so we did.
“I spoke to Josh Rudd at swimming’s Pride In Water, and I did a piece with Cycling Pride on their launch night which I really enjoyed.
“The one that I still think has the most to go is football, and I sat in on a meeting with them for their first pride network meeting. It’s amazing because there were so many people on the call, so many people.
“It was brilliant, but they also face the biggest problems. The biggest one for me is that you have gay supporters and gay officials, but you can’t see anyone on the pitch. There are players who are married in the England team in women’s football, but men’s football has still wrapped itself up in thinking if someone comes out, the media will be horrible.
“The media are waiting for the best story to make themselves a million quid. That’s what’s going on, it’s farcical, so I think football has it’s own issues to resolve on the male side of the sport, because we all know there are gay players out there who, for whatever reason, still feel uncomfortable to come out.
“We might not have the high profile players that football does, but there are officials, backroom staff, team managers and so on in the APN. Certainly that was the case in cycling and swimming too, so if we led the way as an example in that then that’s something to be very proud of.
“Tom Bosworth is a great lad to have in our sport, but he would say himself that he’s not in an event that’s a top draw, standout event in athletics. We don’t have a world medallist yet, nobody on that scale that would help us raise our profile that little bit more.
“It’s good to see that athletes around the world are standing up and being proud though. Kerron Clement in America, his sponsors helped support a rainbow coloured track where he trains, which is amazing. There are other athletes out there, but they don’t shout.
“That’s an interesting one for me, because everybody’s story is different. I’m not going to force anybody to stand up and wave the flag for us, but I like to think that the work we do makes it a lot easier to ask them the question and ask if they mind being a part of it.”
It is perhaps notable that the sports Paul mentioned as having launched pride networks are largely individual disciplines rather than team sports.
As far as he is concerned, those are the sports with a stronger historical male bias, which may be more of the reason they have been slower off the starting blocks to have support networks.
The APN still has ways it can develop – Paul would like to see sport in general do more to support trans inclusion, for example, and his group will play a role in doing that – but Paul sees pride networks having a role to play regardless of what progress is made in the future.
“We want to try and have a presence at Pride events around the country, because I think from a sports perspective you get pride sports organisations, and they’re great, but I think it would be great to back that up with NGB representation as well,” Paul added.
“Call it mainstream sport sport or whatever you like, but having a governing body going ‘we’re here, we’re queer’ would be great. It shows that they are supporting Pride Sports, but in the reverse it makes sure that young people who may be going into their teenage years and are having those thought, questioning whether they can be gay and involved in sport, will know that of course you can.
“You look at people asking why you have to have Gay Pride, well, because I can’t hold my boyfriend’s hand in the street without someone saying I’m not allowed to do that. Until that doesn’t happen, there’s a reason to celebrate and to drive those messages politely home and go ‘this is how it is, there are people in the world besides you’.
“The world isn’t quite there yet, and there are still kids in school who will be horrible because their parents aren’t educated, because we all know it’s not the kids’ faults.
“They will go to school with that attitude embedded from somewhere else, so if we can educate in school and we can support the messages of positivity, then those numbers of incidents will fall – not just because of what the APN, but because of what we can do as a group of networks.”